I’m frustrated that the Philadelphia 76ers wasted another year of Joel Embiid’s prime. Next season, he will turn 28, and at 7-foot, 280 pounds, he has a growing list of lower body injuries. Who knows how many elite seasons he has left?
I’m frustrated that the Sixers’ biggest need is for someone to fill the role — perimeter creator — that is valued most highly around the league. I’m frustrated that two All-Star level players who fill this role were traded this past year, and the Sixers weren’t able to land either of them.
I’m frustrated that every season, I watch Ben Simmons come back with the same important weaknesses, and every season I’m told those weaknesses aren’t important, and every post-season I watch those weaknesses hold the Sixers back, and every off-season I’m told that the real problem was whatever issues were present elsewhere on the team.
At a certain point, fit matters. When people talk about position-less basketball, it’s about using all-around players in numerous roles, not poo-pooing the idea that a point guard should be able to shoot.
Ben Simmons is a strange fit at point guard because besides not shooting (from anywhere), he is not a high-level creator from the perimeter, and when things get tough, he has consistently become passive and avoided touching the ball rather than taking initiative and settling everyone into the offense. He is a strange fit at center because he lacks post moves, does not protect the rim well, and cannot handle strong bigs in the post. But because of his lack of shooting, he is also a poor fit with most centers. In a league where most players fill a role conventionally, it will always be extremely difficult to build a team that fits nicely around Simmons.
Of course, it didn’t have to be this way. From his comments and his actions, Ben has never seemed serious about improving his shot. After all the summer workout videos, Simmons’ free throw form looks as dreadful as ever, probably because his shooting coach is his brother. Some players just can’t shoot, and while it’s not ideal, it’s not the end of the world. Ben has had five NBA years to develop an arsenal of runners, floaters, and post moves. He has not done this either.
Ben Simmons gets talked about as one of the most unique players in basketball. We’re told by his biggest supporters, including his enabling head coach, that Ben’s uniqueness makes him a star, and we need to recognize this and appreciate him. In reality, there have been numerous players throughout NBA history who can dribble, pass, and defend about as well or better than Simmons can. Many are even better athletes. It is likely that none of them have been this poor at shooting and self-creation. If anyone has, they definitely would not have had a team built around them. So yes, Ben Simmons is unique, but he’s unique in his limitations more than in his strengths.
To a certain extent, even Ben’s strengths have been overhyped, partly by himself and his coach, as a justification for his weaknesses. Simmons was tied for 14th in the NBA in assists per game this regular season (6.9, compared to 11.7, 10.8, and 9.4 from league leaders Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Trae Young, respectively). As my friend and colleague Daniel Olinger has pointed out, Simmons is one of the very best players at finding his teammates for open looks but not at actually creating them.
Defensively, Simmons is truly one of the most gifted perimeter players in the NBA. I don’t mean to take anything away from him on that end. But I do think that impact is very often overestimated. After all the talk of Ben constantly guarding the opposing team’s best player in 2019-20, Doc Rivers shied away from that this season, talking a lot about the value he sees Ben having off the ball on defense. Even so, Ben was just third on his own team this year in deflections per 36 minutes with 3.4, compared to 4.3 and 4.0 from Matisse Thybulle and Danny Green, respectively. His steals per game were down from 2.1 last season to 1.6 this season (tied for fifth in the NBA). His 0.6 blocks per game tied a career low and put him outside of the NBA’s top 50 in that category. For all the talk about Ben guarding 1-5, it’s never really been true. He’s never been able to deal with true centers and has had trouble staying in front of quicker guards. Again, this isn’t even really a criticism. Ben is elite switching 2-4, which is something that is valuable and very few players can say about themselves. But it’s just another example of how that defensive value has gotten exaggerated over the years.
If I had to pick one player to guard a perimeter star, that player would be Ben Simmons. Unfortunately, there is only so much even the best defenders can do. He’s been incredible on certain players, like Luka Doncic, but other stars have still gotten theirs against Ben. Quicker guards who love playing in the pick-and-roll, like Trae Young and Devin Booker, have been able to get their shots. Stronger forwards like Giannis Antetokounmpo have gotten Ben into foul trouble. I have little doubt that longer wings like Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant would get shots up over Ben’s perfect defense. It’s not even a critique of Ben — it’s a reminder that, no matter how often you’re told otherwise, great individual offense is much, much more important than great individual defense. Even Ben isn’t a good enough defender to make that not true. In max contract slots, it is absolutely imperative to have a players who can get their own shots.
Ben should be proud of his strengths, but they don’t make up for what he lacks, and he can’t use them as an excuse to avoid working on the crucial weaknesses in his game. He’s seemed to do that over his career, and he seemed to do it again postgame, according to an article written by Yaron Weitzman for Fox Sports:
Then came Game 7. During his postgame news conference one reporter asked Simmons why his performance in the playoffs always seems to drop. Simmons turned to a Sixers staffer seated alongside him.
“How many assists I have?” he asked. The answer was 13. He turned back to the Zoom screen. “I mean, I feel like I found my guys tonight, which I do in the regular season regardless,” he said.
He then turned to the staffer again.
“What did Trae shoot?” he asked. The answer was 5-for-23.
Making matters worse are that the stats show Trae Young actually had more offensive success when guarded by Simmons, which is not necessarily a knock on Simmons but definitely evidence that he’s not the defensive cheat code his supporters claim he is.
Trae Young when guarded by Ben Simmons this postseason:— Ben Dowsett (@Ben_Dowsett) June 21, 2021
43.6% FG, 26 assists, 3 turnovers (8.66:1 Assist-to-Turnover ratio)
Trae Young when guarded by any other 76er:
37.8% FG, 50 assists, 22 turnovers (2.27:1 Assist-to-Turnover ratio)
Ben is clearly a good player, but there have been too many excuses — from himself, his coach, and his biggest fans. While one player doesn’t lose a series, every other Sixers issue from this Hawks series that his supporters will remind you of all tie back to Ben in one way or another.
Dwight Howard, for all of the dumb plays he makes, was a regular, helpful rotation player on last season’s NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers. He is unplayable with a point guard that cannot shoot. Joel Embiid turned the ball over too much because he was being asked to create offense 20 feet from the basket because his point guard didn’t want to touch the ball. The team doesn’t have a true star next to Embiid and Simmons because Simmons’ camp didn’t want Jimmy Butler back, wanting Simmons to be the team’s primary ball-handler. Seth Curry was consistently hunted defensively because the Sixers couldn’t take him off the court for a great defender like Matisse Thybulle for any real stretch because the Sixers didn’t have enough scoring because Ben was a liability on offense. Embiid was easily doubled, and should-have-been open cuts were easily defended, because without the ball (which he did not want), Ben Simmons planted himself in what John Hollinger has referred to as “the puker spot,” between the elbow and low post, doing nothing, helping no one (which is why I’m also skeptical about moving Ben to the 4 on offense).
Ben has always been talked about as a player who makes his teammates much better, and I’ve frankly never understood why. Which teammates? Embiid has changed his game, including becoming a better three-point shooter, to make life easier on Simmons. What has Simmons done to help Embiid?
Doc Rivers, as horrendous as he was against the Hawks, had to make some lose-lose decisions because of Ben’s limitations. Over the years, the Sixers have had a rotating door of problems in the playoffs. The one constant problem has been Ben Simmons. (And I will not hear arguments about the Sixers being swept by Boston without Simmons last year. It’s a strawman. The Sixers, as currently built, are not better without Ben. But to win a title, they need much more from their second-best player on a max contract.)
For years, we’ve been told that Simmons’ weaknesses don’t matter. That his strengths are far more important, and we just don’t understand what we’re watching. This season, as Simmons, now just a month from turning 25, averaged a career low in points, assists, and rebounds, his coach told us he didn’t care. Unfortunately, when everything actually mattered, that clearly was not the case. The weaknesses did matter, and the coach did care, just like anyone who has watched this team the last four years could have predicted. Ben shot 34.2 percent from the foul line in the playoffs, the worst single-postseason mark of anyone taking at least 70 free throws in NBA history. After Doc questioned the intelligence of anyone who suggested pulling Simmons during Hack-a-Ben moments, the intentional fouls became more frequent, and Doc started taking him out almost every game. Doc, complicit in Ben’s failure for not demanding more this entire season, basically threw Ben under the bus postgame, saying he doesn’t know if Simmons can be the point guard on a championship team.
Simmons has always been less assertive than his critics would like, but his fear of going to the line took that to another level this series. He didn’t take a shot from the field in the fourth quarters of Games 4, 5, 6, and 7, most easily symbolized by two shockingly passive plays in the final minutes of Games 6 and 7, the score in both instances within one possession.
There was The Point in Game 6:
And The Pass in Game 7, which was the beginning of what Joel Embiid called the game’s turning point:
Ben Simmons did not just pass this up... pic.twitter.com/4JyM7ZHNkJ— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) June 21, 2021
This series was obviously uncharacteristically bad for Ben Simmons, but it was not hard to predict that his limitations would be what held this team back from a championship. I didn’t think these Sixers had enough to win a title this year, but after seeing how everything shook out, this one is hard to stomach. After earning the number one seed and the easiest imaginable path to the Conference Finals, they still couldn’t make it out of the second round. If they had, the two favorites, the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, both fell early due to major injuries. If the Sixers got to the final four, maybe they could have surprised me and made a real run at a title. It will certainly never get easier than this year’s path of the Washington Wizards, Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, and either the Phoenix Suns or the Kawhi Leonard-less Los Angeles Clippers. We’ll never know, because the Sixers couldn’t even get past the Hawks.
It’s time to move on from Ben Simmons. You’ll see people point to an incredible net rating when Embiid and Simmons share the court. Don’t let it distract you from what your eyes are clearly seeing unfold time and time again. All lineups are a plus with Joel Embiid, but adding a very good guard who can do guard things very well would make the team much better (with Embiid on and off the court). Ben Simmons is not that player, but he is the price for that player in a trade.
Ben Simmons is a good player. Ben Simmons has not made whatever sacrifices are necessary to patch the obvious holes in his game and raise this team’s ceiling. His strengths are not strong enough or important enough to make up for this if your goal is to have him be the second-best player on a Joel Embiid-led title team. Every year we are told they are (by Ben, by his teammates, by his coaches, by his fans), and every year they are not. It’s not a mystery what is holding this team back.
Daryl Morey will be smart about it. The Sixers can’t just dump Ben for nothing — he’s still a good player, and they’re worse off if they can’t get another good player in return. But I do expect Morey to be fairly quick about it, at least by his standards. Morey has talked before about how he’s unafraid to make big trades during the season, and he doesn’t think the roster on opening night needs to be the final roster. But I can’t see the Sixers starting another season with Ben still on the team.
Ben won’t be traded tomorrow, but I do think he’ll be dealt some time in the offseason. It’s the right move for the Sixers, and its probably the right move for Ben. On and off the court, both sides need a fresh start.